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Are You Being Led Down the Fitness Path by a Model of Perfection?

Disorders * Weight- and muscle-obsessed people, attracted to training, may be putting clients at risk, studies find.


If your fitness instructor admonishes you to "get rid of that ugly fat" or "do whatever it takes to look good," it's time to find another instructor.

A small but growing body of research suggests that thin-obsessed females and muscle-driven males may be drawn to fitness careers and may unconsciously transmit their own distorted perceptions to clients. In the mirrored world of the health club, the role models who teach others how to be healthy and fit may be at increased risk for eating disorders, body dissatisfaction and compulsive exercise.

"Females with previous experience of an eating disorder or a dysfunctional association with food and weight may be attracted to the fitness profession," concludes a study reported in IDEA Health & Fitness Source, a magazine published by a San Diego-based association of fitness professionals. In anonymous surveys completed by 368 female group fitness instructors, 21% of respondents reported having a previous eating disorder. Although 90% of all respondents were underweight or average weight, nearly 43% said they wanted to be thinner.

"Fitness instructors are often idealized, and their desire to have perfect bodies can be intense," says Sharon H. Thompson, the study's lead author and an associate professor of health promotion at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Economics plays a role, Thompson says, since employers and clients often pick instructors based on their appearance. But for some instructors, she adds, "teaching fitness classes may provide a culturally appropriate means to justify increased physical activity to maintain their own weight and appearance."

Excessive exercise is not only accepted in the fitness world, Thompson says, it's praised and admired. A former fitness instructor whose own experience with excessive exercise resulted in surgery on both knees at age 30, Thompson says her research was prompted by hearing destructive, "beauty at all cost" messages delivered by some teachers.

"This is not a real popular topic in the profession," Thompson acknowledges. "But we're slowly moving in the direction of more body acceptance. There's an increased recognition that we all have different genes and body shapes, and that you don't exercise for appearance, but for health."

Although females are at greater risk for eating disorders than are males, "men today also face increasing pressures for physical perfection," says Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "Some men develop a pathological preoccupation with their muscularity, which is being called reverse anorexia or bigorexia. Typically a man with this disorder is muscular and fit, but when he looks in the mirror he thinks he looks small and thin."

In a study just published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Olivardia and his colleagues describe this relatively new disorder, also known as "muscle dysmorphia," which is characterized by body-image distortions, anabolic steroid abuse and a prevalence of mood and anxiety problems.

"We interviewed one man who was in line to be a partner in a law firm, except he felt compulsively driven to lift weights, five to six hours every day," says Olivardia. "He exercised for two hours before work, took a two-hour lunch [to work out], then exercised after work. And every hour on the hour, he had to blend and drink a protein shake."

When the man's employer warned him to keep his lunch to one hour and to stop mixing the shakes, he quit and became a personal trainer--a job that allowed him to satisfy his compulsion to lift.

"The majority of personal trainers are healthy," Olivardia says. "But it would be logical that many men struggling with these issues would gravitate to jobs in the fitness industry."

Eating disorders and other body-image problems are rampant among fitness professionals, says Keli Roberts, a Los Angeles trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, who recently decided to "go public" with her personal struggle with bulimia and obsessive exercise.

"We are in a weight-obsessed business, where thinness is often valued more than health," says Roberts, whose client list includes Cher, Faye Dunaway and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and whose credentials include numerous top-rated exercise videos and a book, "Fitness Hollywood."

"Fitness professionals are under tremendous pressure to look perfect," says Roberts, who began starving herself and vomiting in her late teens when she started modeling and sought to keep her 5-foot-10 body at 110 pounds.

She quit modeling in her early 20s "to get healthy," she says, then started exercising to lose the weight she gained. Roberts became an instructor at Los Angeles' ultra-chic Voight Fitness club, where, she says, "everyone kept comparing me to Karen [Voight]--who has a flawless body--and it made me feel really inadequate."

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